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ATSB investigates after hundreds of drones plunge into Yarra River

written by Jake Nelson | July 19, 2023

The Yarra River at night. (Image: Mitchell Luo/Pexels)

The ATSB has opened an investigation into the technical glitch that saw hundreds of drones fall into the Yarra River in Melbourne last week.

As many as 440 drones dropped out of the sky during a pre-game light display to celebrate the Matildas’ soccer match against France at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium on Friday evening, according to the ATSB, with efforts ongoing to retrieve them before their batteries pollute the river.

“Multiple aircraft within a swarm of 500 [remotely piloted aircraft systems] experienced un-commanded movement. This resulted in multiple errors presenting on the ground control station, failsafe mode activations and collisions between RPAS and with water. One RPAS briefly escaped the defined geo-fence area, before control was taken by the operator,” the ATSB said.

“These aircraft and displays have multiple defences in place to limit risk to operators, spectators and bystanders. In this case, several of these defences were used.

“Nonetheless, the ATSB is aware of the increased frequency and scale of ‘drone swarm’ operations in Australia, primarily for entertainment purposes. As such, it is important we take the opportunity to review the factors involved in this accident, to ensure these operations remain safe.”

According to Vic Lorusso from Australian Traffic Network (ATN), which operates the drones used in the display, this is the first technical problem ATN has had in its 18 months of staging “hundreds and hundreds” of drone shows.

“The drones did exactly what they should’ve done with any technical glitch and they auto-rotated and landed. Unfortunately, when you’re over water they auto-rotate and land into the water,” he told the ABC.

“We were there to do a brilliant show for the Matildas so we were very disappointed and bummed out in that aspect but I’m very grateful that everyone is safe.”

The fallout from the incident has had a knock-on effect for drone shows in other states, with Brisbane cancelling another ATN display over the Story Bridge to mark nine years before the city hosts the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics.

The ATSB is calling for video footage of the incident to be sent to [email protected] for analysis, and says it will release a report at the conclusion of its investigation.

“However, should any critical safety issues be identified at any stage during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate safety action can be taken,” the transport safety watchdog said.

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